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Researcher Studies Warm Baths To Ease Labor Pain

(Nov. 3, 2003)   —   The tool for reducing labor pain is as simple as water in a tub. But the reason behind the ease of pain is not so lucid, says nurse-midwife Rebecca Benfield.

An assistant professor in the School of Nursing and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Dr. Benfield recently received a $265,566 Mentored Scientist Development Research Award from the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Margaret Heitkemper from the University of Washington School of Nursing is the primary sponsor. Co-sponsors are Edward Newton, chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Dr. Tibor Hortobagyi, director of the Biomechanics Laboratory at ECU.

The study focuses on the relaxing effects of hydrotherapy bathing on anxiety and pain in laboring women.

"It's not really understood how hydrotherapy works, but it works for many women," Benfield said.

While practicing at the Holy Family Services in Texas in the 1980s, Benfield first witnessed mental and physical anxiety of mothers drop dramatically after being immersed in a warm bathtub of water. "It was amazing to me," she said. "Their whole affect changed. It was so striking that it really makes an impression on you."

Benfield's research, which will take place over the next three years, will study 15 healthy mothers in spontaneous labor. The women will be immersed into warm 37oC water for one hour during labor and they will rate their subjective anxiety and pain levels over time using Visual Ana-logue Scales. Physiological measures will also be evaluated including stress hormones and uterine contractions. Several variables will be controlled as the women participate in the studies, including water depth and temperature.

The study will be conducted at Pitt County Memorial Hospital's Women's Center using a $12,780 hydrotherapy tub.

Benfield notes that while the practice of hydrotherapy is popular and widely used, the psychophysiological mechanisms underlying the effects are poorly understood.

Studying the relationships between anxiety, pain and bathing could help doctors and nurse-midwives better prescribe this intervention for women. As more is known, hydrotherapy can be used as an effective alternative to traditional interventions used in labor including pain medications and epidurals, said Benfield.

The goal is to understand how this natural body and mind relaxation technique could help avoid complications during labor related to maternal stress and anxiety including prolonged labor, poor uterine contractions and fetal distress.

Positive results of hydrotherapy during labor include decreased anxiety and pain. Some evidence suggests that bathing reduces t


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